A few years ago, I attended a free writers’ workshop that was hosted at the Tim Faulkner gallery, a local art spot in Louisville, and I can’t say that I was expecting anything. I had arrived too late to speak to any publishers or printers like I had wanted to – work kept me from arriving any earlier – and I had to take a seat at the back of the venue where my friend, who’d been there all afternoon, had set up shop. It was a little disappointing to see the small turnout, but I was assured there were plenty of people there earlier, mainly drawn by the promise of class credit to college students. What remained were the die-hard writers or fans of the presenters.
There was only one more speaker left on the schedule: a waifish, soft-spoken woman who introduced herself as Leslie Jamison. I craned my neck to try and hear her, since her voice barely carried, even with the assistance of a microphone, but I was able to pick up that she would be reading excerpts from her upcoming book, The Recovering, about her experiences with alcoholism. My stomach tightened a bit, but I just shifted my position on the stool and glanced over at my friend, hoping she hadn’t seen my discomfort. With each selected passage followed with Leslie’s commentary, that feeling of panic and nausea only grew.
“Yes, I’m drunk,” my husband had said as he struggled to wash a pan in the sink. I hadn’t accused him of anything, but I did have a concerned look on my face that I hadn’t realized was there. He said he’d stopped at a local gas station after leaving work and downed a cheap, travel-sized bottle of whiskey, a habit he’d picked up when we’d lived in Kentucky. He had probably imbibed more than that, but I wasn’t about to start that argument. He went on to complain about his life, his choice in friends, glaring at me as he lumped me in with all the mistakes he’d made in his almost forty years of life. With tears in my eyes, I left the kitchen and climbed into bed with Zola, my dog and one of my only actual friends in South Carolina.
We’d moved to the capital of the state without any discussion. Well, apart from him arriving home and informing me that we were doing so. I had just started to develop a sort of life in Louisville, with friends and a job at a comic shop that I actually enjoyed. The pay was shitty, but I worked a full forty hours a week and was able to escape the four walls of our studio apartment where my only company was comprised of animals. We were only in Kentucky for six months before he decided he was miserable and went to interview in Columbia, which took place during our anniversary. We celebrated the event at a mediocre Indian restaurant, and then I accidentally drove over a curb and destroyed the rim on the right front tire. Being stranded so far away from anyone who cared about me was an eerily accurate metaphor for what my life had and would continue to entail, and with perfect retroactive vision, I should have gotten the fuck out then. But I didn’t.
Leslie discussed how strikingly similar the stories of all AA members are. While they may come from different backgrounds, their reasons and actions are nearly identical: stressful environments, family history, genetics, and mental health. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. After all, I’d attended Al-Anon meetings.
My Al-Anon meetings were usually held on the same nights as my husband’s AA meetings were, so very often, we would meet up outside the church or community center and talk for a bit before heading home separately. Every time, I felt like I was talking to a stranger, someone I barely knew outside superficial recognition. The man I thought I’d married was instead a liar, a narcissist, a manipulator, and an alcoholic. Maybe because of one of those things, the rest became necessary, I don’t know. But he kept insisting he wasn’t an alcoholic, despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, I coddled him because our fights had lessened and I was still tenuously within the throes of his conniving, gravitational influence. But the little voice in the back of my mind kept telling me that I had to leave him, despite what some of the women in my Al-Anon group were telling me.
Leslie confessed to having lied about drinking. There was not a follow-up or explanation, just a statement that she remembered the first time she had done it. As I waited for her to expound, she moved on, and I could barely pay any further attention as those words just kept bouncing around in my head.
In October 2015, my husband was admitted into the hospital after suffering from the effects of alcohol detox. Well, I didn’t actually find that out until later, from the lips of a sympathetic ER nurse as I signed the hospital paperwork. He’d just been discharged from a three-day stint in a locked, guarded hospital room, where he was forced to wear red socks and sleep without any sheets. All I knew prior to hearing those words was that he had been ranting about a dark magician, arguing and joking about his own death with people in his head as he paced up and down the hallway of our house, and confessing all the evils he had committed during our marriage, specifically all the lies he’d told, starting from day one. But here was that same man, staring at me with glassed-over eyes and wearing the suicide-watch uniform (thin yellow pajamas and red socks), and even as I hugged him, all I could think about was the stashes of crushed beer cans, half-consumed wine bottles, and empty glass flasks of inexpensive liquor I’d found haphazardly hidden all around our house. Some were even outside, under the deck or in the ramshackle garden shed a few feet away. He had blamed it on the former owner of the house, who had himself been an alcoholic, and at the time, I had no reason to question him.
As quickly as she glazed over the lies she had started to tell others, Leslie introduced a woman named Nell, who had shown Leslie all the hiding spots she used to have in her house and explained that her husband was having a hard time dealing with her relapses. Nell seemed cultured and aware of her vice, unapologetic about it but also careful to stay aware of it. I think I was supposed to sympathize with Nell, an admitted alcoholic who wasn’t always in control of it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her spouse. Was their marriage now stronger than ever, a combined front against a disease that left even the bravest of souls fleeing in fear? Or did he blame himself for yet another of her alcohol-induced rages, because really, he did say that one innocuous thing that set her off? Did he remain to walk on eggshells and worry about when he would catch her again at a “bad time” or noticed that yellow tint to her sclera? Or had he exiled himself because his self-imposed marital duty was no longer reason enough to stay?
After my husband returned with me from the hospital, I told him I had wiped the slate clean. Whatever lying he’d done, whatever manipulations he’d performed … all of that would have no weight in our relationship. We were going to get to know each other again, and that could not happen without that fresh start. Looking back, it really was a naive notion, but I’d spent five years with this man, backing him against my better judgment and forsaking relationships with friends and family because of it. If I left him, my life would be completely … empty.
The next several months were difficult, peppered with flashes of happiness, and I spent most of them rationalizing everything: he’s just learning to live honestly, he wasn’t really an alcoholic, his childhood and past relationships would cloud anyone’s perception of reality, etc. But then, in the middle of an argument he had started, he said this:
“Every time we’ve taken your lead, it’s ruined my life.”
In this moment, everything came into sharp focus, as if my brain suddenly decided, “I’m done not thinking.” Throughout our entire marriage, everything had been his idea: leaving my job, moving further and further away from my family, buying a house … the list continued. And I didn’t question any of those decisions, since he had spent the first years of our marriage breaking me down into a completely dependent person. Oh, no, I ignorantly followed him, craving his affection liked an attention-starved puppy.
A few weeks later, I left.
Leslie continued her readings, but I stopped listening. The five years of marriage I’d endured had engulfed me, and I was able to see things a lot more clearly than I had before. While my now-ex-husband had been addicted to alcohol, I had been addicted to him. Now, I had been abused into the addiction, but that was the only real concrete difference. I spent the first two years after leaving him simply replacing him; I was raped by a person I thought was a friend and possibly a future partner, and the next relationship I chose was loveless but safe. I was detoxing.
There were at least two other recovering alcoholics in the audience who applauded Leslie for her honesty and humility about her addiction, and I completely agree with their praise. But all I could think was how many stories focus on those living with and around an alcoholic? Why is the one suffering from the addiction more important than the wife/husband/parent/friend? And why are the partners who stay with them considered strong? The strongest I’ve ever been was when I pulled out of that driveway for the last time.
I must have driven back and forth down Farrow Road seven or so times, each time staring as I passed the house I had shared with my husband. It was this pitiful thing with an overgrown pampas grass bush in the front yard and a bright coral door that he had painted a few weeks after we’d moved in. With each drive-by, I tried to recall any happy times that might have occurred. None came to me.
I approached Leslie after her reading and asked if she ever got to a point in writing her book where the emotions were just too raw and she had to stop. Thankfully, she admitted she had, but she was lucky enough to be able to write about someone else – a historical figure in most cases – in another part of the book, giving her a reprieve. She still wasn’t completely okay, though. It was just as hard for her to read the words she wrote aloud as it was for me to hear them.
It’s a long road to recovering completely, if it does actually end. I often wonder when my panic attacks will cease 100%, when I’ll start to trust people, when I’ll feel completely whole. Maybe never. I officially divorced my husband on November 13, 2018, and now, almost two years later, I find myself more at peace with what happened and who I have become because of it. I am a damaged but hardy vessel, ready to move with the lessons I have learned and maybe pass them on to others. That’s all I can really hope for, I guess … that this was not for nothing.